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Under international law, no country currently owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The five surrounding Arctic countries, the Russian Federation, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland), are limited to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) adjacent to their coasts. The waters beyond the territorial waters of the coastal states are considered the "high seas" (i.e. international waters). The sea bottom beyond the exclusive economic zones and confirmed extended continental shelf claims are considered to be the "heritage of all mankind" and administered by the UN International Seabed Authority.
Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country has a ten-year period to make claims to an extended continental shelf which, if validated, gives it exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed of that extended shelf area. Norway (ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (ratified in 1997), Canada (ratified in 2003) and Denmark (ratified in 2004) launched projects to provide a basis for seabed claims on extended continental shelves beyond their exclusive economic zones. The United States has signed, but not yet ratified the UNCLOS.
The status of certain portions of the Arctic sea region is in dispute for various reasons. Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic seas as "national waters" (territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles (22 km)) or "internal waters". There also are disputes regarding what passages constitute "international seaways" and rights to passage along them (see Northwest Passage).
In 1925, based upon the Sector Principle, Canada became the first country to extend its maritime boundaries northward to the North Pole, at least on paper, between 60°W and 141°W longitude, a claim that is not universally recognized (there are in fact 415 nmi (769 km; 478 mi) of ocean between the Pole and Canada's northernmost land point). In 1926 Russia fixed its claim in Soviet law (32°04′35″E to 168°49′30″W). Norway (5°E to 35°E) made similar sector claims — as did the United States (170°W to 141°W), but that sector contained only a few islands so the claim was not pressed. Denmark's sovereignty over all of Greenland was recognized by the United States in 1916 and by an international court in 1933. Denmark could also conceivably claim an Arctic sector (60°W to 10°W).
In addition, Canada claims the water within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as its own internal waters. The United States is one of the countries which does not recognize Canada's, or any other countries', Arctic archipelagic water claims, and has allegedly sent nuclear submarines under the ice near Canadian islands without requesting permission.
On April 15, 1926, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR declared the territory between two lines (roughly 32°E and 169°W) drawn from west of Murmansk to the North Pole and from the eastern Chukchi Peninsula to the North Pole to be Soviet territory.
Until 1999, the North Pole and the major part of the Arctic Ocean had been generally considered to comprise international space, including both the waters and the sea bottom. However, both the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as global climate change causing the polar ice seasonally to recede farther than expected due to climate change has prompted several countries to claim or to reinforce pre-existing claims to the waters or seabed of the polar region.
As defined by the UNCLOS, states have ten years from the date of ratification to make claims to an extended continental shelf. On this basis the five states fronting the Arctic Ocean - Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation, and the U.S. - must make any desired claims by 2013, 2014, 2006, and 2007 respectively. Since the U.S. has yet to ratify the UNCLOS, the date for its submission is undetermined at this time.
Claims to extended continental shelves, if deemed valid, give the claimant state exclusive rights to the sea bottom and resources below the bottom. Valid extended continental shelf claims do not and cannot extend a state's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) since the EEZ is determined solely by drawing a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) line using territorial sea baselines as their starting point. This point is made because press reports often confuse the facts and assert that extended continental shelf claims expand a state's EEZ thereby giving a state exclusive rights to not only sea bottom and below resources but also to those in the water column. The Arctic chart prepared by Durham University (see Further Reading reference) clearly illustrates the extent of the uncontested Exclusive Economic Zones of the five states bordering the Arctic Ocean and also the relatively small expanse of remaining "high seas" or totally international waters at the very North of the planet.
Canada ratified UNCLOS on 7 November 2003 and had through 2013 to file its claim to an extended continental shelf.
As of July 2001, Canada has not filed an official claim to an extended continental shelf with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Canada had through 2013 to file such a claim; Canada announced in December 2013 that it will file a claim which includes the North Pole.
This is posturing. This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything. There is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We've made that very clear. We've established - a long time ago - that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century.
I read reports of the statements made by my Canadian colleague, Peter MacKay. I know him quite well – it’s very unlike him. I was sincerely astonished by "flag planting." No one engages in flag planting. When pioneers reach a point hitherto unexplored by anybody, it is customary to leave flags there. Such was the case on the Moon, by the way.
As to the legal aspect of the matter, we from the outset said that this expedition was part of the big work being carried out under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, within the international authority where Russia’s claim to submerged ridges which we believe to be an extension of our shelf is being considered. We know that this has to be proved. The ground samples that were taken will serve the work to prepare that evidence.
On September 25, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "President Putin assured me that he meant no offence, ... nor any intention to violate any international understanding or any Canadian sovereignty in any way." Prime Minister Harper has also promised to defend Canada's claimed sovereignty by building and operating up to eight Arctic patrol ships, a new army training centre in Resolute Bay, and the refurbishing of an existing deepwater port at a former mining site in Nanisivik.
Denmark ratified UNCLOS on 16 November 2004 and has through 2014 to file a claim to an extended continental shelf.
The Kingdom of Denmark declared that the Danish straits including the Great Belt, the Little Belt, and the Danish part of the Sound, formed on the foundation of the Copenhagen Treaty of 1857 are legally Danish territory. As set out in the treaty section of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, it should remain so.
The Danish autonomous province of Greenland has the nearest coastline to the North Pole, and Denmark argues that the Lomonosov Ridge is in fact an extension of Greenland. Danish project included LORITA-1 expedition in April–May 2006 and included tectonic research during LOMROG expedition, which were part of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year program. It comprised the Swedish icebreaker Oden and Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy. The latter led the expedition through the ice fields to the research location. Further efforts at geological study in the region were carried out by the LOMROG II expedition, which took place in 2009, and the LOMROG III expedition, launched in 2012.
Norway ratified the UNCLOS on 24 June 1996 and had through 2006 to file a claim to an extended continental shelf.
On November 27, 2006, Norway made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). There are provided arguments to extend the Norwegian seabed claim beyond the 200 nmi (370 km; 230 mi) EEZ in three areas of the northeastern Atlantic and the Arctic: the "Loop Hole" in the Barents Sea, the Western Nansen Basin in the Arctic Ocean, and the "Banana Hole" in the Norwegian Sea. The submission also states that an additional submission for continental shelf limits in other areas may be posted later.
Russia ratified the UNCLOS in 1997 and had through 2007 to make a claim to an extended continental shelf.
The Russian Federation is claiming a large extended continental shelf as far as the North Pole based on the Lomonosov Ridge within their Arctic sector. Moscow believes the eastern Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf. The Russian claim does not cross the Russia-US Arctic sector demarcation line, nor does it extend into the Arctic sector of any other Arctic coastal state.
On December 20, 2001, Russia made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). In the document it is proposed to establish the outer limits of the continental shelf of Russia beyond the 200-nautical-mile (370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone, but within the Russian Arctic sector. The territory claimed by Russia in the submission is a large portion of the Arctic within its sector, extending to but not beyond the geographic North Pole. One of the arguments was a statement that Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain ridge passing near the Pole, and Mendeleev Ridge on the Russian side of the Pole are extensions of the Eurasian continent. In 2002 the UN Commission neither rejected nor accepted the Russian proposal, recommending additional research.
On August 2, 2007, a Russian expedition called Arktika 2007, composed of six explorers led by Artur Chilingarov, employing MIR submersibles, for the first time in history descended to the seabed at the North Pole. There they planted the Russian flag and took water and soil samples for analysis, continuing a mission to provide additional evidence related to the Russian claim to the mineral riches of the Arctic. This was part of the ongoing 2007 Russian North Pole expedition within the program of the 2007–2008 International Polar Year.
The expedition aimed to establish that the eastern section of seabed passing close to the Pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is in fact an extension of Russia's landmass. The expedition came as several countries are trying to extend their rights over sections of the Arctic Ocean floor. Both Norway and Denmark are carrying out surveys to this end. Vladimir Putin made a speech on a nuclear icebreaker on 3 May 2007, urging greater efforts to secure Russia's "strategic, economic, scientific and defense interests" in the Arctic.
In mid-September 2007, Russia's Natural Resources Ministry issued a statement:
|“||Preliminary results of an analysis of the earth crust model examined by the Arktika 2007 expedition, obtained on September 20, have confirmed that the crust structure of the Lomonosov Ridge corresponds to the world analogues of the continental crust, and it is therefore part of the Russian Federation's adjacent continental shelf.||”|
Viktor Posyolov, an official with Russia's Agency for Management of Mineral Resources:
|“||With a high degree of likelihood, Russia will be able to increase its continental shelf by 1.2 million square kilometers [460,000 square miles] with potential hydrocarbon reserves of not less than 9,000 to 10,000 billion tonnes of conventional fuel beyond the 200-mile (320 km) [322 kilometer] economic zone in the Arctic Ocean||”|
As of March 2014, the United States had not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, therefore, has not been eligible to file an official claim to an extended continental shelf with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
In August 2007, an American Coast Guard icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, headed to the Arctic Ocean to map the sea floor off Alaska. Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, stated the trip had been planned for months, having nothing to do with the Russians planting their flag. The purpose of the mapping work aboard the Healy is to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska.
It was stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on March 25, 2007, that riches are awaiting the shipping industry due to Arctic climate change. This economic sector could be transformed similar to the way the Middle East was by the Suez Canal in the 19th century. There will be a race among nations for oil, fish, diamonds and shipping routes, accelerated by the impact of global warming.
|Wikinews has related news: Arctic ice levels at record low opening Northwest Passage|
The potential value of the North Pole and the surrounding area resides not so much in shipping itself but in the possibility that lucrative petroleum and natural gas reserves exist below the sea floor. Such reserves are known to exist under the Beaufort Sea. However, the vast majority of the Arctic known to contain gas and oil resources is already within uncontested EEZs. When these current uncontested Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the Arctic littoral states are taken into account there is only a small unclaimed area at the very top potentially available for open gas/oil exploration.
On September 14, 2007 the European Space Agency reported ice loss had opened up the Northwest Passage "for the first time since records began in 1978", and the extreme loss in 2007 rendered the passage "fully navigable". Further exploration for petroleum reserves elsewhere in the Arctic may now become more feasible, and the passage may become a regular channel of international shipping and commerce if Canada is not able to enforce its claim to it.
Foreign Ministers and other officials representing Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States met in Ilulissat, Greenland in May 2008, at the Arctic Ocean Conference and announced the Ilulissat Declaration. Among other things the declaration stated that any demarcation issues in the Arctic should be resolved on a bilateral basis between contesting parties.
Hans Island is situated in the Nares Strait, a waterway that runs between Ellesmere Island (the northernmost part of Nunavut, Canada) and Greenland. The uninhabited island was named for Greenlandic Arctic traveller Hans Hendrik.
In 1973, Canada and Denmark negotiated the geographic coordinates of the continental shelf, and settled on a delimitation treaty that was ratified by the United Nations on December 17, 1973, and has been in force since March 13, 1974. The treaty lists 127 points (by latitude and longitude) from Davis Strait to the end of Robeson Channel, where Nares Strait runs into Lincoln Sea; the border is defined by geodesic lines between these points. The treaty does not, however, draw a line from point 122 ( ) to point 123 ( )—a distance of 875 m (0.54 mi). Hans Island is situated in the centre of this area.
Danish flags were planted on Hans Island in 1984, 1988, 1995 and 2003. The Canadian government formally protested these actions. In July 2005, former Canadian defence minister Bill Graham made an unannounced stop on Hans Island during a trip to the Arctic; this launched yet another diplomatic quarrel between the governments, and a truce was called that September.
Canada had claimed Hans Island was clearly in their territory, as topographic maps originally used in 1967 to determine the island's coordinates clearly showed the entire island on Canada's side of the delimitation line. However, federal officials reviewed the latest satellite imagery in July 2007, and conceded that the line went roughly through the middle of the island. This presently leaves ownership of the island disputed, with claims over fishing grounds and future access to the Northwest Passage possibly at stake as well.
As of April 2012, the governments of both countries are in negotiations which may ultimately result in the island being split almost precisely in half.
The Canadian position is that the maritime boundary should follow the land boundary. The American position is that the maritime boundary should extend along a path equidistant from the coasts of the two nations. The disputed area may hold significant hydrocarbon reserves. The US has already leased eight plots of terrain below the water to search for and possibly bring to market oil reserves that may exist there. Canada has protested diplomatically in response.
No settlement has been reached to date, because the US has signed but has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If the treaty is ratified, the issue would likely be settled at a tribunal.
On August 20, 2009 United States Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke announced a moratorium on fishing the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, including the disputed waters. Randy Boswell, of Canada.com wrote that the disputed area covered a 21,436 square kilometres (8,276 sq mi) section of the Beaufort Sea (smaller than Israel, larger than El Salvador). He wrote that Canada had filed a "diplomatic note" with the United States in April when the US first announced plans for the moratorium.
The legal status of the Northwest Passage is disputed: Canada considers it to be part of its internal waters according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States and most maritime nations, consider them to be an international strait, which means that foreign vessels have right of "transit passage". In such a regime, Canada would have the right to enact fishing and environmental regulation, and fiscal and smuggling laws, as well as laws intended for the safety of shipping, but not the right to close the passage. In addition, the environmental regulations allowed under the UNCLOS are not as robust as those allowed if the Northwest Passage is part of Canada's internal waters.